Not lost in translation: Local courts grapple with interpreter shortage

TRI-CITIES, Wash. -- Immigrants from Russia, Vietnam, and India are setting up home in the Tri-Cities, giving our courts quite a challenge.

There are very few places where communication is as important as it is in a courtroom.

Each day, hundreds of people come to court to solve life's chaotic curveballs, and it's Ana Armijo's job to make sure all is not lost in translation.

"Some days I can start out in Franklin County, come over to Benton County, go back to Franklin County, and then go back to Benton County," she tells KEPR.

As a court interpreter, Armijo's clients range from small time crooks to suspected murderers; all of whom don't know a word of English.

Here in the Tri-Cities, its becoming the norm rather than the exception, especially as our area blossoms in a melting pot of different cultures and different languages.

Not many people speak Burmese or Farsi, so you can imagine the challenge for local courts when people who speak those languages are still entitled to justice.

Last year, our local courts spent more than $70,000 on interpreters. That was nearly $10,000 more than in 2011. The spike in costs come as more foreign languages pop-up in our courts, causing a shortage of local interpreters. To tackle the problem, the courts often bring-in outside help, causing costs to soar.

"You're having to pay for their travel and their lodging, and that adds to the expenses," says Benton Court Supervisor Pat Austin.

Court workers tell Action News Russian and Vietnamese translators are needed the most. That's in addition to Spanish translators like Armijo..

"(My clients) are always thankful," Armijo says. "I just explain to them that that's my job... and I do it gladly."

State grants do help pay some of the costs of interpreters, but as the costs rise, state money is often not enough to help our courts.